Oprah and the Evangelical Church: Where Is the Difference?

Ranked as the world’s most influential woman, Oprah Winfrey is undoubtedly a woman who has inspired millions with not only her wisdom, her wide circle of connections, but also with her very own rags to riches story.  Although much ink has been spilled over her questionable influence in matters of spirituality, this post is not about her, instead it is about the church.

In 2005 a national survey of pastors was conducted, asking each of them to name the books that have most influenced them.  The Purpose-Driven Life was the most frequent response.  Authored by America’s pastor, Rick Warren, the book which has sold the most copies of any book in print, excepting only the Bible.  Warren, who has amassed significant wealth as a result, retains a significant level of influence including the ear of the President of the United States.

Here is where we play the game regularly found in copies of the children’s magazine Highlights: circle the differences in these two pictures.

It’s a Little Hard to Tell

On the cover of this month’s issue (November 2009) of O: the Oprah Magazine is a byline touting the phrase “Who Are You Meant to Be?”  Standing in the line at the checkout of our local Target store, I made a bet with my wife: this article must have been written by purpose-driven himself.  Alas, my wallet was a bit lighter because instead of Rick Warren, this was a series of articles written by a number of people with a handsome number of different perspectives on the topic.

Oprah herself begins the series, talking about her own humble beginnings and her determination to be something more than her surroundings dictated.

I believe there’s a calling for all of us.  I know that every human being has value and purpose.  The real work of our lives is to become aware.  And awakened.  To answer the call.

No doubt that Oprah, deep down inside, believes that the strength of her determination has made her what she is.  Literally living in the lowest parts of society, she wanted to have more and to be more than she was.  However, it was not just her belief and determination that made her special.  She also had ability, talent, tenacity, and other character qualities that gave her an edge.  She is also intelligent with a great voice and charismatic personality.  Plenty of other women and men have believed and worked very hard, but have not achieved the stature of wealth and influence that is Oprah.

This bell rings with a similar pitch to what we hear in churches these days.  Joel Osteen is one who is eager to hold himself up is his best example of a life that can lived to its fullest potential.  What Oprah seems to forget is that if we all became her, then who would be at home to watch?  If we all stood at the top then who would be there to support us?

Tapping Into the True Self

Author, Ann Lamott

“We already are… who we were born to be,” says Anne Lamott who has written books called Traveling Mercies and Grace (Eventually), both of which have been acclaimed by Christians as raw and real thoughts on being a Christian.  In her article which appears immediately after Oprah’s introduction, does not mention Christ or the church, even in passing.  Yet she freely acknowledges what many a purpose-driven pastor is hesitant to say: to preach this message, no god is required.

Lamott shares what seems to be a “spiritual” way to seek for the inner self, the inner purpose, and ultimately the inner peace.  She encourages readers to seek deep within to find what is really true for them and how they can live in resonance to the rhythm that their life is playing.  “I pray that your awakening comes with ease and grace,” she says, offering no divine connection at all.

Finding purpose in life is something that, when you listen closely, Rick Warren agrees does not require God.  In his TED talk, he encouraged those unbelievers he was talking to by telling them that “God smiles when He sees you be you.”  In essence he tells people who are successful without God that it is their very success that is driving them toward God’s favor.

I Don’t Need God for That

Just this week I had a conversation with my mother-in-law about her son whose recent reason for not wanting to attend church was that being good does not require a god.  He cited the Code of Hammurabi and how it predated the Ten Commandments by 400 years, and how that code was not given by God.  She was frustrated with him, but I assured her that he is right.

After catching her breath, I explained that when we begin to think of Christianity as simply a way to find our purpose in life and to live that life with impeccable morals, well he is exactly right.  No where is there an indication that the Code of Hammurabi was divinely inspired.  Not a single connection is made between the story of the Bible and the giving of that moral code.  Other than the first commandments which are unique to monotheism, the Ten Commandments are contained within not only the Code of Hammurabi, but also the scores of other such codes for conduct.

Christianity is not moralism.

Christianity is not about self-actualization or finding my life’s purpose.

Today is Friday, November 20th, 2009.  Today Oprah Winfrey will address her throngs and tell them that she is ending her talk show within the year.  What will be next?  She may decide to join the likes of Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Steven Furtick, Creflo Dollar, and Joyce Meyer and begin her own ministry.  And why not?  If “pastors” preach the same message on Sunday that she has been giving people five days a week, it will be a walk in the park for Oprah.

I DO Need God for This

If what we mean by self-actualization we mean that when reading the Bible you realize that at your core you are a wretched sinner in desperate need for a savior.  After all, if we do work out the journey of self-actualization to its stated goal, that is all we will find.  It is the message of the layers of rules and regulations that protesters enjoy reminding Christians of when having moral debate. To teach that at the core of every human is a beautiful purpose not only undermines the teaching of the Bible, but when we lie in bed at night, we know it violates our very existence.

This is indeed bad news: it is the news that there is nothing good within me and there is no part of me that seeks good.  Yet, it is that core realization which opens wide the doors to the love of Christ and the Gospel.  When we are able to face the bad news, the good news is truly just that.  It is the reality of our sin that displays the beauty of what Christ has done.  It is as simple as the placards that people hold up during basketball games: John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  Only when we embrace the bad news is the Good News sweet.

The Gospel is not about being good enough.  The Gospel is not about finally finding your life’s purpose.  And the Gospel does not end.  Christianity is about the sacrifice of Christ being enough, and that nothing else matters.  The Gospel says that there is nothing that you can do to make God love you any more and nothing you can do to make God love you any less.

This is what Christ has to offer.  Anything else is counterfeit.


About Aaron Gardner

Aaron is a counselor and student of the Bible, passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. He lives in central Indiana with his wife, one-year-old son and their two dogs. View all posts by Aaron Gardner

9 responses to “Oprah and the Evangelical Church: Where Is the Difference?

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  • Mark Abraham

    Well said. What IS the difference if we say that we all have “purpose inside”–and it doesn’t include understanding the bad news about our depravity?

    I like Warren alot. He may be wealthy, but is actually a “reverse-tither”: giving 90%, living on 10%.

    What is sad is that he dillutes the Gospel when addressing agnostics and atheists. He shouldn’t have spoken at TED if he knew he’d be waterig-down the bad news/good news. TED is intended to stray far from religion and politics, thus no point in presenting, if you can’t talk about Jeus.

    Let’s get to the point where we can accept the bad news so that we can explore what God’s real purpose is for us–salvation and more.

  • Job

    Two issues.

    1. It can be proposed that Joel Osteen, Rick Warren and fellow travelers do not represent the evangelical church, but rather a certain very problematic portion of it. If John Piper, John MacArthur, Paul Washer, Voddie Baucham and John Stott are not evangelical, how would you classify them?

    2. Demonstrating how Warren and Osteen are similar to Winfrey by providing examples of their teaching – and giving those examples in context as opposed to sound bites or snippets – would have been extremely effective.

  • Aaron

    1. Agreed. Classifying terms can be difficult to manage and maintain as they do indeed change over time. Part of the question should also be what criteria we may use to even suggest that some of these forenamed would even be considered pastors.

    2. Agreed. Had you followed links that I provided in this post you would have seen some of my previous work on those very topics. Also, as I said in the post, there has been much said about Oprah and her spirituality. I provided a link to an episode of “Fighting for the Faith” in which Chris Rosebraugh does a thorough analysis of Oprah’s perspectives.

    Thanks for the comment 🙂

  • Boz

    It seems that you are disproportionately criticizing Joen Osteen. This is your 4th(?), 5th(?) post criticizing him, with very minimal or no mention of other versions of christianity (or other religions) that you disagree with.

  • darkhornet

    “The Gospel says that there is nothing that you can do to make God love you any more and nothing you can do to make God love you any less.

    This is what Christ has to offer. Anything else is counterfeit.”

    Well said!

  • Todd Altizer

    “The Gospel says that there is nothing that you can do to make God love you anymore and nothing you can do to make God love you any less.”

    1. Isn’t it written that God had a favorite? (Lucifer)
    2. God loves Jesus no more then the Prince of Darkness?

  • themotherinlaw

    When I first read this post I was a little offended but didn’t respond because I decided to let it go. But I just read it again and I can not leave it at that. You have used our conversation to make a point, which I have no objection to, except that you have made me look like I am legalistic and think that rules get you to God. I DO NOT! In fact the frustration was larger than that. I already knew that the Code of Hammurabi predated the Ten Commandments. His point was that since the Code came first then Moses just copied them. Not only that there are many flood stories; and the story of god sending his son who then dies for the people is also not unique. So his argument is not about being good it is about the truth and legitimacy of scripture altogether and thus the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
    This week on the radio I heard Tony Evans say that to find purpose we must first find God because without Him we really have no purpose. I think that my son would respond to that by saying, “That’s his opinion, but that doesn’t make it true.” Keep on blogging son, but don’t misquote me. I love you and I’m proud of you.

  • Aaron Gardner

    I had no idea you felt this way! I had no intention in painting you as a legalist. My point was that so many times when we talk about the morals and ethics of our faith we leave the cross implicit. I talked to Teddy after I posted this and he was surprised that Christianity is all about Christ, and that that changed life is what motivates us to want to do good. It was surprising to me when I learned it a few years ago having grown up in the church and spending years of my life thinking that Jesus saved me to work my butt off to please him for the rest of my life. I am completely confident that asked if Christ is all sufficient for our salvation you would not hesistate to say “yes!” The trouble is as ministers, parents, counselors, and even good friends we encourage people to live a better life, which we should, but if we neglect to explicitly say that Christ is the reason, means, and power by which we do those things and make those changes we sound like we are legalists and betray the very message we know to be true.

    I sincerely apologize for making you look like a legalist. The last thing I want to do is to hurt you with how I write about the way our conversations impact my thinking. I will do what I can not to let that happen again.

    I don’t know if it would be helpful at this point, but he got most of those ideas, at least originally, from the Zeitgeist movie (which is on youtube in its entirety). My post was not to be about all of his arguments, but this article was very helpful to me in sorting out what the movie said with good scholarship: http://www.alwaysbeready.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=124&Itemid=107.

    Also, in effort to clarify, my problem with talking about “purpose” is that it falls on so many ears by giving the impression that we are talking about individual lives, what job to take, and acquiring the means to make a worldwide impact. Seems to me that one of the themes of the Bible is that God created us “to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). Our purpose is to glorify God with every word and deed. So yes, we do find our purpose in Christ, I just struggle against a more “purpose-driven” version of that.

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